Hillbrow’s people, great and small

Young@Home

CELEBRATING the Gogo in a flurry of love. Young@Home, photographed by Mark Straw.

THERE’S A VERY precious kind of gem being honed in the poor suburb of Hillbrow, which without Pollyanna high-jinks or saccharine overstatement, has the potency and power to literally change the world. Young@Home is an initiative which, like Donkey Child, a couple of years ago, is parented by the Hillbrow Theatre, and like Donkey Child features the melding of skills and experience great and small, and what you get out of it ultimately is a theatre experience so cogent and rich that it reaches right back to the sacred roots of what theatre-making is about, for the community, with the community and by the community.

It’s an assemblage of real stories, melding a cast of young people and one of old people:  the elderly on stage are residents of the Tswelopele Frail Care Centre, which is in Hillbrow and the children on stage are members of the Hillbrow Theatre Project. While you might anticipate a bit of a Christmas pudding of a show, given the wide range of amateur performers, and the largeness of the cast on stage, it’s not what you get. This community-centred cast is honed and shaped into a level of poetic articulation, by the work’s creative team, and whether or not you understand the languages used to tell the stories, almost becomes irrelevant: there’s a flow of energy and empathy between the nubile young people with their white costumes and red scarves, and the frail old ones in a dignified black and white, which articulates that give and take between generations that makes the world turn.

As tempo and volume, song and layering of words infiltrates the piece, the sway and rhythm of narrative is allowed to unfold, allowing everyone – from the Tswelopele resident who is confined to a wheelchair yet tells her tales and sings, to the one who flits silently through the choreography, her arms outstretched, like a small and determined, yet crumpled bird – a place in this narrative that matters.

It’s the kind of show that will touch you very deeply. Advocacy theatre at its most profound, like Sibikwa and other projects addressing and giving voice to the poorest of the poor, Young@Home has artistic integrity, but also presents a value for society at large that is real and filled with the texture that makes us all human and skirts and confronts the meaning and sense of theatre at its core. This is a theatre experience that will change the world, if it’s given the chance; it’s something you should include among what you consider a ‘must-see’.

  • Young@Home is told by the cast, written by Jefferson Tshabalala assisted by Phana Dube and directed by Gcebile Dlamini consulted by Peter DuPont Weiss. It features design by Sonia Radebe and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography and music), João Orecchia (soundscape), Gcebile Dlamini (set) and Phana Dube (lighting). It has a cast from the Hillbrow Theatre Project: Nonjabulo Chauke, Rendani Dlamini, Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Sbusiso Nkosi Mabethu, Brandon Magengele, Tisetso Masilo, Amahle Mene, Zinhle Mnguni, Jackson Moqotlane, Lesley Mosweu, Dakalo Mulaudzi, Abongiwe Ndlovu, Lihlithemba Ngcobo, Prince Nyathi, Aminathi Radebe, Surprice Seete and Bayanda Junior Xolo; and a cast from the Twelopele Frail Care Centre: Harry Card, Florah Nkoana, Benjamin Pule, Milton Sibiya, Adelaide Tukuta, Vicky Walker and Themba Xaba. It opened on April 1 at the Hillbrow Theatre, and travels to the Olive Tree Theatre in Alex on April 3 at 2pm; to the South Rand Recreation Centre on April 4 at 10am; to POPArt Theatre, Maboneng on April 8 at 3pm, to the Drama For Life Conference at Wits University on May 6 and to the Assitej World Congress and International Theatre Festival for Children and Young People in Cape Town on May 23-24. Visit facebook.com/HillbrowTheatreProject or call 011 720 7011.
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How to spice Christmas with shlock, shock and socks

cyrilandshirley

GETTING on like a house on fire: Son and mother, Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) and Shirley (Toni Morkel). Photograph by Dean Hutton.

THE YEAR’S BEEN grim, callous and ugly to most of us. We’ve lost people we’ve loved. And jobs we’ve relied on. War’s been apparent all over the place. As has disappointment in those who lead us. What better way to herald its closure than to indulge in easily the best nativity play you can imagine. Taking the earnestness from the tale and sprinkling it liberally with cabaret, intimate drunken mother/gay son dialogue and other fine spices, this nativity was a sock puppet drama, with schlock and shock ramped up all the way.

Arguably a character who is set to become iconic in South Africa is Sheila Shler. Last month, wig askew, lipstick smeared, but her posh Saxonwold accent still intact, she reported to facebook audiences from the SQs (servants’ quarters) of her grand estate, announcing that her (former) maid, Tryfeena had captured her house and moved her to the servants’ quarters while she slept. It was a tale constructed by veteran performer Robert Colman, contingent on the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’ saga spouted by Brian Molefe formerly of Eskom in his urge to prove himself clean of a Gupta stain, but that’s another whole story.

Sheila has since begun to enjoy a series, which is developing as we speak. And a family. Of sorts. While she did do a guest appearance in the nativity saga, involving baking and boogying, it was Sheila’s very very good friend, Shirley (Toni Morkel) and her son Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) who hosted the delicious revue. Confused yet? Well, you shouldn’t be.

This collaboration by unquestionably the country’s greatest veteran performers, in their sparkly slingbacks, double-decker wigs and bathing suits, to say nothing of long plastic eyelashes, as they lip synced perfectly to opera and delved with grubby issues of old age, sex and death most deliciously, was simply fantastic. It was a slice of Doo Bee Boobies and a soupçon of what might happen next in Sheila Shler’s life. And it was replete with many hilarious cherries on top, including a performance by the inimitable Irene Stephanou as Jesus’ granny with a strong Greek accent, who resents being omitted from the bible; the unforgettable Christine by Mark Hawkins who has terrifyingly dead eyes and other surprises; and a reflection on Welkom as being a little piece of hell for the aged, by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel (who played Death).

With repartee as filthy and direct as is necessary and puppetry by Margaret Auerbach and Eduardo Cachucho that had the audience bordering on hysteria, there were nubs of poignancy and reality that pierced the show and lent it heart. You didn’t just go away with a grin hurting from too frequent use. Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas Variety Show has the potential of being a trailblazer in a whole range of directions, from Stephanou’s Jesus granny tearing into biblical narrative a la Kazantzakis  and his Last Temptation of Christ, to Sheila Shler’s ongoing tale of woe as a beacon showing the other side of what is happening in this country. This was a one-night-only event, but if there’s a chance it will regenerate itself come the end of 2017, there’s certainly something to look forward to in the year ahead!

  • Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas variety show was written, directed and performed by Robert Colman and Toni Morkel. It featured puppetry Margaret Auerbach and Spellbound Puppets, as well as performances by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins, Roberto Pombo, Fiona Ramsay, Irene Stephanou. It performed for a one-night-only season at Pop Arts theatre, Maboneng precinct, downtown Johannesburg on December 15. Visit popartcentre.co.za

Supported by the Constitution, betrayed by the world

chapter2section9

TOUGH girls do cry: Ayanda Rose Fali, Ayanda Sibisi, Tsholofelo Ross and Khanyisa Nanabe (seated) simmer in their performances. Photograph courtesy The Critter.

HOW DO YOU represent sexual violence on stage? It cannot be sexy. It cannot be comical. It cannot be beautiful. It cannot be explicit. It also cannot be abstract. Your audience has to go away from the spectacle shattered with an understanding of the horror, the irrevocable violation that has occurred. Seasoned playwright and director Phyllis Klotz, cofounder of Benoni-based Sibikwa, has crafted a searing play in Chapter 2 Section 9 that touches all of these bases, and has the potency of becoming the torch song for black South African lesbians.

Premised on the equality clause of the Constitution, the work, performed in a heady amalgamation of South African languages is an assemblage of different interviews with women who have experienced the private loopholes in this clause. Women who have been rejected by their parents, their children or the police. Women who have been brutally – and sometimes lethally – raped by men intent on ‘curing’ them of their homosexuality. Women who have borne the brunt of being shamed for being different from the rest of their community. Women who have had to reconstruct and justify the most private intimate aspects of their lives to strangers. Because they’re gay. It is performed with a fresh and magnetic sense of authenticity by a very young but extremely articulate cast.

In many respects, like Murray Nossel and Paul Browde’s important performance initiative, Two Men Talking, the piece is premised on words rather than graphic depictions of violence. The curious thing with a work like this, is if you read the newspapers and watch TV, if you look at photographic exhibitions and speak to people, the horrendous concept of so-called corrective rape perpetrated on black lesbians in the townships of South Africa is something you should have heard of.

The dreadful anecdotes of gang rape and murder that black lesbians have suffered in the name of their being different from society are stories with horrible endings that have tragically become predictable in the trajectory which has been told over and over again. Only the victims’ names and faces differ. And yet, the tales in this play are told with a burning bluntness and a frankness that is utterly electric, and at no point in this 90 minute show can you pull your attention from this work.

The set features a bleak yet potent set which comprises bare white trees with photographs of victims of corrective rape hanging on their branches like fallow fruit. It has the words of the equality clause written boldly across the stage. And it is brought to life with intense orange hues, but also with the haunting a capello singing of the cast, at times supported by Isaac Molelekoa on keyboard and violin, at times in tune with the mournful energies of their stories.

Teasing apart the complication of sexual identity, from how one’s parents, grandparents, siblings and children respond to it, to grappling with church values, the work explores the question ‘what is a lesbian?’ in the same way that it puts the question of ‘what is an African?’ under the loupe. Can a lesbian not be allowed to want to have children? Why is homosexuality considered unAfrican? And while the cast rarely interface with one another, leaving the stories as stories being recounted rather than narratives re-enacted, each of them led by Tsholofelo Ross who holds your eye and your heart even when she is sitting quietly, embraces the piece with an authenticity that is raw, a sense of self that is credible.

  • Chapter 2 Section 9 is written and directed by Phyllis Klotz based on research by Collen Mfazwe and Janneke Strijdonk-Xulu. It is designed by Isaac Molelekoa (music composition), Sarah Roberts (costume and set) and Stan Knight (lighting) and is performed by Ayanda Rose Fali, Khanyisa Nanase, Tsholofelo Ross and Ayanda Sibisi, in the Amphitheatre, Wits Theatre Braamfontein. It is part of the Wits969 Festival and performs again on July 16 at 6pm. wits.ac.za/witstheatre/whats-on/969-festival/969-festival-programme-information/  It also performs at Pop Arts Centre in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg on August 6 and 7 and as part of Vavasati, International Women’s Festival on August 18 and 19 at the Arena, State Theatre in Pretoria.

A play that makes the world turn on an avocado

Fruit

Lucy and me: Matshediso Mokoteli embraces the harrowing tale of Paul Noko’s ‘Fruit’ with wisdom and depth. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

A YOUNG girl quietly talks of life, the universe and everything to her plastic doll, with the kind of illogical quietude and gentle give-and-take that little children adopt when in conversation with their toys. Thus opens arguably one of the most powerful, well defined and  ingenious plays that we in this city have been privileged to see, in a long time. Paul Noko’s Fruit brings together all the central principles of grand theatre in this low-budget, taut work, where the main grown-up protagonists are stones with faces drawn onto them, and an urban geography is cast by small cartons and pieces of community detritus.

But avocados will never be the same again. In a tour de force performance which recalls what Lara Foot did to the understanding of a cabbage leaf in Karoo Moose and what Lionel Newton and Andrew Buckland did to the understanding of a watermelon in The Well Being, 19-year-old performer Matshediso Mokoteli renders the humble avocado a repository of hope and violence, terrible cruelty and great loss.

As you take your seat in the audience, you are immediately and irrevocably plunged into the quirky chilling blend of fantasy and reality that unfolds in the whimsical portrayal of a community in an informal settlement. The characters are well developed and curious. Their interface is about the camaraderie that comes of living with scant resources, but also of being in the proverbial same boat as your neighbour. And the trajectory is an unstoppable one which you know will end with tears and horror, but you can’t look away.

There’s ugliness and drunkenness and loss and brokenness, but there’s also beauty and felicitation. And there’s a baby, who suffers the horrors of neglect, abandonment and abuse in the most harrowing context. But the whole trajectory of this baby’s life is relayed in a sing-song frankness, which not only embraces it with the kind of sophistication that doesn’t allow you to turn away even through accounts of incest and arson, but rather it mesmerises you to your moral core.

This is the kind of play which defines powerful storytelling in the least sensationalist and wisest way possible. In so doing, it soars above and beyond the notion of artifice, as it conveys the nub and texture of the horror yet joy of life in an indigent society. There is no romanticising of poverty here, no political grandstanding. The story is told as it happens, and this frank splaying of happenings makes it sing.

  • Fruit is written and directed by Paul Noko. It is performed by Matshediso Mokoteli and was the winner of the Zabalaza Theatre Festival in Cape Town in 2015. It enjoyed a short season earlier this month at the Pop Arts Theatre, in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg.

Goldendean and the treachery of the pronoun

Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy

Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy

Walk into any environment. Engage with strangers. What are the basic signifiers that enable you to do so? For one thing, language. For another, gender. An understanding of whether someone is a girl or a boy fundamentally affects how you respond to them. Call it upbringing. Call it social context. Call it psychology.

But what happens in a situation in which the very pronouns that you have been using all your life, are revealed as tainted? As potentially offensive to one to whom they do not apply. Everything, but everything, gets cast into disarray, and you are threatened with a kind of paralysis in expressing yourself.

Dean Hutton’s debut performance in The Cradle dismantles your sense of comfort in the world in a way that leaves you unsure who you are when you leave the space – and even unsure as to who you had been from the outset.

This is not to say that it messes directly with your own sexuality, but rather, it presents such a rich conundrum of being that it can shake you to your very foundations. On the exhibition’s opening night, an environment, a sense of mystique was created, and as you entered the space, your every sense was subtly seduced with tactile richness that made it difficult to be in the space for a long period of time because it was so intense.

From the fact that you were instructed, at the outset, to either take off your shoes or don plastic shoe-protectors, to the smell and feel of the soil so richly blanketing the space, to the sound of the bell, both in the performance itself, and the videoed performance, a sound which was also punctuated with that of a water fountain in the exhibition space and that of thunder on the sound track, every element played together to embrace you.

People were shy to begin navigating the space. The sacrosanctity of it all was complete. The artist, in golden nakedness, stood amidst the soil, sweeping swaths of it clean: perhaps in the shape of a map of Africa? Either way, Hutton wore a large bell at the waist. It rang and rumbled as Hutton swept, dangling like a metallic scrotum.

There is a sublime subtlety which contains Hutton’s nakedness as it contains the images of Hutton’s dogs, Comet and Luca or the natural environment on film. Audiences do not laugh with characteristic embarrassment that you might anticipate from such a situation. Having conquered their shyness, they move into the space and respectfully interact with the artist, who responds to them, while sweeping and ringing bells.

Hutton’s work on The Cradle begs comparison with that of South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen, who is currently based in Lille, France, given the use of performance, of nakedness, of environment. Hutton’s aesthetic, however, digresses vehemently from the invasiveness of Cohen’s persona. There’s less of a sense of adornment here, and more of a critical self-exploratory nakedness. The work is unsettling in a different way.

A low point in this extraordinary piece, was the positioning of Alberta Whittle in her role as Mummywatter. Playing with the ancient myths surrounding the Mami Wata, which ties the notion of the mermaid with that of fertility, Whittle performed the piece adorned in flowers and an impenetrable blueness. She sat in a plastic bath, making origami of money and distributing pieces of paper which reflected on the sangoma flyers that are handed out sporadically in urban South African traffic. A powerful performance in her own right, embracing enormous mystique, Whittle was positioned against the far wall of the gallery.

You were so swept away by Hutton’s presence and performance that it became easy to overlook what Whittle looked like, or was doing. This element of The Cradle should have been more confrontational, posing different challenges to the visitor.

Hutton’s debut as a performance artist is a gesture that cannot exist without follow up: a new character has emerged into South Africa’s performance art litany. What happens next?

  • The Cradle, an exhibition of new work by Dean Hutton in collaboration with Alberta Whittle and Anna Christina Lorenzen is at GoetheonMain, at Maboneng downtown Johannesburg, until October 25.

Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo take the piss out of hell itself, with complete aplomb

Dirty: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

Lascivious with smeared mascara and dirty words: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

There’s an element of such blatant lasciviousness in the framework, articulation and texture of Jemma Kahn’s new kamishibai-redolent production that you have to laugh. Sex, like death onstage, needs to be handled with a level of spoof that expunges earnest urgency and enables it to entertain without sliding off foolishly. Kahn, opposite Roberto Pombo demonstrates the intelligent sophistication necessary for this work never to teeter into gratuitous eroticism. They retain the upper hand, in keeping the work as light and frothy as possible, without losing the entertaining edge.

And touch on sex and death they do – even allowing their proverbial fingernails and tongues to explore beneath the hypothetical surfaces. The work offers an understanding of power, seduction and horror, and in its narrative tightness and Kahn’s articulate performance, it’s never overstated.

We didn’t come to hell for the croissants, like its forerunner under Kahn’s hand, the Epicene Butcher – boasts a raft of stories for consenting adults. It embraces an unapologetically contemporary western take and loses the Japanese flavour of the first show. The device of Chalk Girl, a theatrical foil written by John Trengrove for Klara van Wyk in the Epicene Butcher, has transmogrified into Pombo’s almost demented silent character, dressed as he is in a hybrid costume that’s part peep-show tawdriness, part magician’s assistant in its rude, oft crude suaveness, which raises a giggle rather than an eyebrow: while the work certainly isn’t tame, its parameters enable it to retain its stage production identity.

This is what successful theatrical entertainment is about – the stories have morals, but they’re constructed to surprise you, to make you laugh and in a grown up sense, be titillated. There’s nothing soft about these pieces which consort with the devil with as much abandonment as you can muster or imagine. The work’s certainly not for children or the prudish, but the level of sublime manipulation of tone and content, the manner in which words are allowed to twist happily on their own meanings or nuances, and the way in which punch lines are delivered with a slick hand and a teasing eye leave you unable not to wonder what magic and poetry this team could create if they were performing Shakespeare or Beckett.

Croissants is an excellent showcase, in so many literal and figurative ways, for the unquestionable skills of Kahn and Pombo – and the writers and illustrators whose work appears in this format. But its existence is about more than frankly being in the world: it’s about the need to reshape one’s identity in a theatre world where jobs are scarce and auditions bad for the ego. Kahn has reinvented this wheel with all the chutzpah, laughter and derision necessary: may she continue with abandon.

  • We didn’t come to hell for the croissants: Seven deadly new stories for consenting adults is directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza with writing by Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster, Lebogang Mogashoa, Justin Oswald, Nicholas Spagnoletti and Louis Viljoen and illustrations by Carlos Amato, Rebecca Haysom, David Jackson and Jemma Kahn. It features production design by David Hutt (costumes) and is performed by Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo. It was part of the Wits 969 Festival during July and will perform at POPArt theatre in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg August 26-30 and for an extended run in Cape Town towards the end of the year.

When the Old and the Beautiful becomes the Dark and the Lovely

Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.

Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.

Picture the scenario: the scene is cast, with a fabulous director, a seasoned duo of performers and a tuned piano. Chairs are placed, the tone is set. And then the power goes down. “It’s scheduled!” yell some. “It’s not!” yell others. But still, it’s dark as pitch, and the show’s about to start.

This is what happened for the opening performance of the second season of The Old and the Beautiful, tonight, a song and piano work which tears apart and glories what it means to age. And in spite of incipient darkness, acts of God or other irritating lurgies, the show must always go on, and it did: against the velvety blackness of the night, the wavering harsh circle of a torch or two and in the glow of some strategically placed candles, the performers gave a very privileged audience a taste of the full production.

It was perfect. Glorying in the gravelly, ‘telegram from hell’ kind of work of Marianne Faithfull, the breathless and breathtaking ‘Maybe this time’ from the 1972 film of Cabaret and a piece from the rich experimental heady days of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, the work is funny and subtle and humble with its self-deprecating pizzazz moments, but one in which the centre is firmly cast with a great deal of soul. And a hefty dollop of cynicism.

Watching this in the dark with the performers – Fiona Ramsay on vocals and Tony Bentel on piano – unable to rest on any gimmicks by way of amplification and lighting, you realise the value of true commitment to a discipline. And it makes you shiver. And weep.

Nine years ago, in 2005, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Bill Flynn as Bottom, suffered a similar indignity. It was load-shedding season at the time and half way through the work, the power was out and pandemonium began to break out in the theatre. But the tale wasn’t allowed to end with disgruntled audience members blindly feeling their way home. No: director Dorothy Ann Gould clapped her hands and announced that the show would go on, in the garden. It was a midsummer’s night. And the magic was real.

Similarly, the Old and the Beautiful began its December season with priceless and classy aplomb. It’s a true gem of a work, bringing together the considerable talents of Bentel and Ramsay. You might not be privileged enough to see it in the utter dark, but see it, you should: a delicate and gritty reflection on the fabric that make us all human and vulnerable.

The Old and the Beautiful is compiled and performed by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. It performs at POP Arts, Maboneng, in central Johannesburg, until December 7.